DISCLAIMER: I don't own FF8 or Square Enix, but a hostile takeover is on my to-do list, right below world domination and building a giant chocolate fountain on the yard of my future mansion. Fingers crossed.
A/N: Gah, this took longer than I thought it would. Writing this chapter was great fun, but editing it and working out all the kinks and plot holes was a nightmare. I hope I didn't miss any glaring errors.
You'll notice the appearance of GF abilities in this chapter, something I've never used in the past. The problem I have with many of them is that, even in the context of a fantasy story, they make little sense in a non-gaming aspect. It would be ridiculous to try and incorporate something like the Card ability, for example. To that end, I'm only going to use the abilities which, if slightly tweaked, can work in a fantasy setting. In this chapter's case, Diablos's Enc-None is translated into invisibility. Moreover, I'm using an old concept of mine concerning the summoning of a GF. The idea is that the person intending to junction a GF carries with him a summoning stone where the GF's spirit is 'stored,' for lack of a better term.
Also, watch as I take the least useful spell (after scan) in the game and abuse it to meet my chapter's needs xD I have come to the conclusion that Float is the best spell, ever.
This is the chapter where the story earns its M rating. Be warned that there is a somewhat disturbing scene at the very end. I toned it down significantly from the first draft, but if you don't do well with gore, you may still wanna skip it. Just stop reading after the scene where a talk between Laguna and Squall is interrupted by Esthari soldiers; you'll still get the gist of what happened.
Same warning goes for a dish that is mentioned in this chapter. Word of advice: do not google 'shirako' if you can't stomach the thought of, er... exotic food xD
Chapter 11: Sub Rosa Pt. 2
"Secrets are made to be found out with time."
- Charles Sanford
Rusty: "You'd need at least a dozen guys doing a combination of cons."
Danny: "Like what, do you think?"
Rusty: "Off the top of my head, I'd say you're looking at a Boeski, a Jim Brown, a Miss Daisy,
two Jethros and a Leon Spinks, not to mention the biggest Ella Fitzgerald ever."
- Ocean's Eleven
"Selphie, you look so kawaii!"
Quistis bit down on her lip, glancing from Laguna and Selphie hugging, to Squall, who looked like he wished the earth would split open and swallow him whole. He's probably thinking he expected Laguna to say something like that, she mused, trying her hardest not to laugh out loud.
Selphie glanced over her shoulder mid-hug to give everyone a look that plainly stated: 'See? Laguna got it right,' then pulled away, letting the President exchange hellos and pleasantries with everyone else.
Quistis waited for her turn, distracting herself with the gorgeous decorations of the palace's dining room. Laguna's capable staff had pulled out all the stops to please their guests, filling the room with sweet-smelling Esthari orchids and setting up a beautiful table.
Quistis hadn't had many chances to dine in Esthar in the past, and she was only vaguely familiar with their dining habits and etiquette. What stood out more than anything was the low, legless table surrounded by a dozen plush, red sitting pillows. Out of respect for the foreigners, Quistis guessed, cutlery had been placed next to each plate along with the traditional chopsticks.
"Admiring our table?" Laguna asked genially, standing in front of her.
"Actually, yes," Quistis said, smiling at him. "Everything looks wonderful, Mr. President, thank you for all this."
Laguna let out a sigh. "How many times, Quistis? It's Laguna, please," he said, and leaned down to kiss her on the cheek.
"I'm sorry," Quistis said, returning the kiss. "Thanks for the invitation, Laguna," she said and followed him toward the table.
Getting every single person in the room to their seats took longer than expected. With Ellone, Kiros and Ward joining them, it was a while before hellos and welcoming embraces were exchanged between everyone. By the time Quistis finally plopped down on her seat, her feet were already killing her. Every single time, she thought ruefully. Why do I keep wearing heels when I can't stand them?
A ripple of excited chatter rose through the room once everyone was seated. Ellone in particular was glowing tonight, Quistis noted with a smile. Her life within the Presidential Palace, while certainly peaceful, was no doubt boring at times. She didn't have any other friends to speak of and her condition had always been an obstacle in her social life; she couldn't afford to open up to many people out of fear that her powers would become known.
Over at the head of the table, Laguna wore an expression similar to Quistis's, smiling as he watched Ellone talk to Squall and Irvine. Even Zell's sour mood seemed to have improved a little in her company.
As the kitchen staff entered the dining room to serve the drinks and appetizers, Quistis took advantage of the momentary distraction to slip the heels off her feet. There. Now if only there was a way to change into my pajamas, she thought wistfully. While it was fun to dress up occasionally and attend a black tie event, the last few days lay heavy on her shoulders, making her wish she could enjoy all this food and company in a more comfortable outfit.
"A toast, a toast!" Laguna said, calling everyone's attention to him and reaching for the large pitcher that had been deposited on the table. He took each cup in turn, filling it with a cool, strong-smelling drink Quistis knew as sake. She suspected that even a single, tiny cup of alcohol was enough to put her to sleep right now, but she pushed her cup forward all the same. Kiros was passing it along to Laguna when a gentle knock on the double doors interrupted their dinner.
A tall black man stepped into the dining room. He was either in his late twenties or very early thirties, Quistis guessed, with very short curly hair and a pair of worn-looking, bespectacled light brown eyes. Under any other circumstances, his serious face and compact body may have been imposing, but right now, he seemed tired and slightly apprehensive.
"Mr. President, sir," the young man said, pushing his glasses up his nose. "I'm really sorry to interrupt your dinner-"
Laguna waved a hand airily, smiling at him. "Don't worry about it, Logan. You're here to join us?"
"No, sir, I-"
"Oh come on, you don't have to feel shy. Here, let me introduce you," Laguna said, not giving him a chance to refuse. "Everyone, this is Logan Vale, my right-hand man. This is my son, Squall," he began, and went on to name everyone seated at the table, with the exception of Ellone, Kiros and Ward. Vale nodded at all of them politely, though it was clear he was in a hurry and had only meant to drop in for a quick word.
"Pleased to meet you all," Vale said once Laguna's introductions reached an end. "But I really cannot stay, sir. I simply came to inform you I have to leave for Sanmoku a little earlier than planned," he explained. "I will be gone before dawn, so I wanted to let you know the documents you requested have already been sent to your personal account."
"Thank you, Logan. Really though, won't you have a seat?" Laguna asked again. "There's plenty of food to go around. You had a rough day; kick back and relax a little."
Vale shook his head. "Thank you, sir, but I haven't packed a thing yet," he said. "I should go get ready."
"Are you sure?" Laguna asked.
"You haven't had a bite to eat all day," Ellone piped in. "Uncle is right, you should join us."
"Thank you, again, but I really can't, Miss Loire," Vale insisted.
"I'll have the chef send something to your room, all right?" Laguna said with a sigh, finally accepting defeat. "Get some rest, you look exhausted."
"I will, sir. Have a pleasant evening," Vale said and quietly exited the room.
"Great kid," Laguna said once the doors closed behind Vale, and he turned back to his guests. "Works himself to death, though. See how he wouldn't even stick around for dinner? I've been trying to get him to loosen up a bit, but to no avail."
At the other end of the table, Kiros let out a snort almost in sync with Ward. "You tried to fix him up with Governor Hiroshi's niece," he said, while Ward nodded in agreement.
Laguna reached for the pitcher of sake once more and continued to pour a generous amount in everyone's cup. "She's a lovely girl!" he said, now looking at Rinoa as if he was trying to convince her his ventures into the realm of match-making were perfectly justified. "Pretty, easy-going, smart; she has an honors degree from Gal-Sci."
"She... sounds great," Rinoa said in an attempt to humor him, and picked up her cup.
"And then there was Senator Ogawa's daughter—" Kiros went on.
"Well, I thought if he wasn't into science-y girls, I'd try a girly girl. Fantastic ballet dancer."
"Then Lady Kanajima's daughter—"
"Okay, a little spoiled, but c'mon, she's gorgeous and polite—"
"And then…" Kiros said, half-glaring at Laguna. "Governor Taka's son."
If he was embarrassed by this tidbit of information getting revealed, Laguna didn't show it. He simply shrugged and filled Quistis's cup, now addressing her. "I figured he wasn't into girls and was just too shy to tell me."
"Well," Quistis said, assuming she was expected to say something back. "It's a possibility, I guess?"
A few seats away from her, Squall drained his cup of sake in one gulp and tried to blend in with the background.
"Ward says you should leave the poor kid alone," Kiros said, translating Ward's vivid hand gestures. "He can get a girlfriend on his own if he wants to. Or a boyfriend, for that matter."
"But he never leaves the palace!" Laguna exclaimed, nearly dropping the pitcher in exasperation.
"He will when he wants to," Kiros said. "Leave him be and make your damned toast."
Pouting, Laguna finished serving everyone and raised his cup, resting his cheek on the balled fist of his free hand. "Cheers, or whatever," he said, followed by a series of mumbles that Quistis couldn't quite make out.
Kiros stood up from his seat and held out his cup, smiling. "To our honored guests," he said. "For all their great work and for giving us the pleasure to spoil them a little tonight. Cheers!"
Seifer counted the little boxes segmenting the screen. Twelve total. The program Jack was running was, simply put, a simulation of multiple monitors all displayed in one single screen. Using it, they could watch the feed of various cameras within Garden at once. On the downside, every separate window was significantly small. If they wanted to keep a closer eye on a particular camera, they needed to zoom in and lose sight of what was going on everywhere else.
Normally, Jack would have gone about this using actual monitors, but they weren't exactly able to draw upon their usual resources tonight. All they had was a laptop and a microphone, set up on the desk before them so Jack could relay orders and information to the team.
"Here's Felix," Seifer said, pointing at the feed of the camera showing the west wing of Balamb Garden.
"Mmm-hmmm," Jack hummed, nodding, and looked up from his work for a second. For the past hour or so, he had been tampering with a new generation cell phone –smart phone, he'd called it- and only glanced up at the screen every now and then. "Shouldn't we be seeing one of Leonhart's men right about now?" he asked.
"They'll be there," Seifer said. "I don't know who's in charge, but they'll be there. He didn't just bolt without leaving someone behind to check things out."
"Is it time?" Nyx asked.
Seifer looked over his shoulder at him. "You ready?"
"All right, let's do this," Seifer said, getting up from his chair.
He made his way over to his room and stepped up on the mattress of the bed, reaching for the vent on the top right corner of the wall adjacent to his bed. Nyx followed suit, helping him dislodge the grid they had loosened about an hour earlier. Seifer pulled it out and laid it down on the mattress, then turned to stare at the dark, gaping hole above them.
"Just like in the movies?" Seifer asked, a little uncertainly.
Jack turned his chair around to look at the pair. "Well... it's not as roomy as you may have been led to believe, but Nyx can fit through.
Seifer grimaced at the hole leading up to the ventilation system. It was narrow, all right. Being the slimmest of them all, Nyx was the only one suited to execute this part of the plan. They'd already had a trial run a couple of hours ago, but this time around, Nyx would have to move for a lot more than ten feet in one direction and there were about a hundred ways this could end horribly.
"I've been thinking..." Seifer said, still looking up at the dark hole. "Maybe you should grab a few more Floats. Keep casting them on yourself until you get to the second floor. You won't make a lot of noise and you don't run the risk of crashing through the ceiling if the pipes aren't strong enough to hold your weight."
"They'll hold," Jack said. "We tested it-"
"Just in case," Seifer interrupted him, looking at Nyx. "Draw a few more from me."
"You'll need them more than he will," Jack muttered, eyes still focused on the phone's screen as he tested whatever it was he'd been trying to accomplish.
"I'll have enough," Seifer insisted. "Draw five more."
Nyx did as he was told and held up his right hand, concentrating. Seifer felt the familiar rush of magic flowing through his veins, then the sharp, brief sting of it leaving his body. "Got 'em?" he asked Nyx, letting out a shudder as the last shred of energy got sucked out.
Nyx nodded and began to check his backpack to make sure he had everything he was going to need. Once every item had been accounted for, he handed Seifer a small flashlight and stepped up right underneath the hole.
Seifer bent down on the mattress and put his hands together, forming a step to help Nyx up into the vent. Nyx put one hand against the wall, placed the other on Seifer's shoulder and one foot on his cupped hands. "One, two," Seifer counted. "Three," he said, and stood up, giving Nyx a boost as he did so.
Jack approached the bed as well, leaving his post to see Nyx off. He was holding the phone in his hand, which he now handed to Seifer. "Give this to Nyx," he said.
"Why does he need a phone?" Seifer asked, examining the contraption in his hand. "We can talk to each other through the commlink. Isn't that what you gave us all mics and earpieces for?"
"This phone is... special," Jack said, grinning. "Nyx knows what to do with it."
Though a little angry he had been left out of the loop, Seifer had had enough experience working with Jack to know not to doubt him by now. At least when it came to technology. He handed to phone to Nyx, who placed it into his backpack and held one hand out, a spell forming between his gloved fingers.
The Float spell hit his chest and as soon as it lifted him up, Nyx twisted his body around, now facing the ceiling of the vent. Seifer reached up and handed him the flashlight.
"Don't forget to switch back every now and then," Jack said. "Restore blood flow and all that."
Without a word, Nyx secured the flashlight between his teeth and set off, moving quickly and silently like a spider across the top surface of the vent. Seifer and Jack watched him go until they could no longer make out the light source or his shape.
"Hyne, lookit 'im go... Jonah was right," Seifer said, shaking his head in disbelief. "He really is like a damn monkey."
Jack let out a chuckle, nodding in agreement. "You sure you wanna go down to the MD level yourself? Nyx can probably pull it off in two minutes flat."
"I said I was gonna do it and I will," Seifer said, putting the vent back in place. "I'm not gonna sit pretty while you do all the work."
Jack returned to his seat behind the desk, taking a quick glance at the monitors to make sure he hadn't missed anything. "When you're done," he told Seifer. "Come here so I can explain what your equipment does."
"We've already been over this," Seifer said with a grunt, pushing the vent into the metal frame and making sure it stayed put.
"Yeah, like you didn't forget the second I told you," Jack said, letting out a scoff. "We'll go over it again until I'm certain you got it. Besides, you may have to fly solo; we don't even know if you'll be able to get a signal down there for me to walk you through it."
Seifer hopped off the bed and joined Jack at the desk, pulling the ziploc bag containing all his equipment open.
"Leave the camera," Jack said. "If you can't figure out how to pin a small camera on your shirt, then we have far bigger problems than getting access to the camera network."
"Har, har," Seifer drawled. "And I thought we already had access."
"No, we don't."
"What the hell do you call that then?" Seifer said, pointing at the laptop screen.
"Look mate, I'm doing about a thousand things at once," Jack explained. "I can't keep worrying someone will notice I hacked into the surveillance system on top of everything else. It took all I had to even enter the network and that was a pretty silent hack. I don't want to risk doing anything bigger, so we're going to get access physically. It'll give me some peace of mind, let me concentrate on everything else."
"Physically?" Seifer asked.
"The spider," Jack replied. "Once you implant it, I can use it to monitor the feed from there, mess with it any way I want and no-one will ever notice. If we're going to cover our tracks, we need to trick whoever's watching with fake feed. If I try doing that with another messy hack I might get caught, but with the spider in, I'll be undetectable," he said, pulling out the small, transparent little box he had given Seifer earlier on. "Like I said before everyone took off, all you gotta do is clip this on the right conduit on the server."
"And how do I know which conduit is the right one?" Seifer asked.
"You don't," Jack said. "You'll have to try them one by one. There will be a spot in the server room marked as the surveillance network, but there's going to be a lot of wires to choose from. We want the main conduit for the MD level, the one where the feeds from the all the cameras down there end up in. You'll know you've hit the jackpot when the signal on the receiver shows you any of the MD level rooms," he said, pointing at the PDA-like device. "Now, on to using the receiver..."
Sinking into his seat, Seifer stared at the ceiling gloomily. "I've changed my mind, let Nyx do it."
Jack tossed a small booklet on Seifer's lap. "Stop whining and read the fucking manual."
Shaking his head, Seifer opened up the manual and began to read, as Jack shifted his attention back to the laptop. All joking aside, he really would prefer it if Nyx or anyone else was assigned to deal with the technological aspect of his role in the operation. Complicated machinery, while a welcome commodity, always confused the hell out of him. He was getting dangerously close to falling asleep as he read the booklet on how to use the receiver, when he saw out of the corner of his eye that Jack was no longer watching the camera feeds.
Instead, he had opened up a couple of applications, none of which rang any bells to Seifer, and was typing away. Seifer squinted at the black window, watching Jack enter what he assumed were commands of some sort. "What are you doing?" he asked.
"You said Leonhart is baiting us, so now I'm returning the favor," Jack said.
"I thought you said you didn't wan to risk another hack," Seifer pointed out.
"This one, I want them to see. If his men won't come out themselves, we'll smoke them out."
Xu paced back and forth the room, certain she must've dug a veritable canyon on the floor by now. The situation on the third floor surveillance room was going smoothly, so far.
Nida and Shizuka, along with Aaron Xyphias, their resident network technician, were her team for the night. For nearly half an hour, however, Xyphias was the only one doing anything other than trying to kill the time. His pale face was illuminated by the glare of a dozen monitors, as he kept a close eye on what was taking place in every part of Garden covered by the camera network.
Shizuka was catching up on paperwork as they waited, while Nida, netbook on his lap, kept an eye on one of his on-line auctions. Every now and then, he would mutter something about a 'moron ChocomanRAWKS97' and then started typing and clicking.
In Squall's absence, Xu was not only responsible for the whole Garden, she also had to watch out for Seifer's every move. Squall was positive his team was going to try to get access to the brig and talk to the prisoner, and Xu had been instructed to make things difficult for them, but let them think they had succeeded all the same.
While she was excited at the prospect of catching Almasy red-handed, Xu was a little worried at how they'd yet to detect any sign of suspicious activity.
"YESSSSSSS! FIRST EDITION CHOCOMAN AND CHICOBOY ISSUE 47 IS MINE, BITCH!" Nida yelled in one breath, arms aloft.
Xu, along with every one else in the room, turned to gape at him. Shizuka in particular had nearly fallen off her chair at the sudden exclamation and was still clutching her heart in shock.
That fucking idiot.
"Are you kidding me?" Xu snarled at him. "We're supposed to be doing actual work here, and you-"
"Oh lighten up," Nida said, grinning broadly at his laptop. "It's not like anything has happened-"
"I don't care!" Xu spat back. "Even if we have to sit here staring at the walls for ten hours, you're going to-"
"WHAT?" Xu snapped at Xyphias.
"I got something," Xyphias said, pointing at the screen.
Xu hurried over to the control panel, leaning over Xyphias's shoulder. Nida and Shizuka soon followed suit, all looking at the spot where Xyphias was pointing. "There's three of them, heading out of dorm 24C."
Xu squinted at the screen, making out the silhouettes of the three men in question. They were Seifer's men, all right; the medic, the short one and the tall one all the girls in Garden seemed to have gone gaga over. "Where's Seifer?" she asked.
"Hasn't left the dorm. The medic is in the east wing," Xyphias said, pointing at the monitor showing an overview of the east wing. "Looks like he's heading toward the library. This one is reading the directory and the guy with the silver hair is in the west wing. There he is, he's going into the cafeteria."
"Hmmm... Why aren't they together?" Xu wondered out loud, frowning.
"Why should they be?" Nida asked.
"Because they're the 'new guys.' They all came together to an unfamiliar place," Xu explained. "They have no-one to talk to aside from each other and the first time they're out and about they split up? What, did they all suddenly decide to make friends separately?" she said, letting out a scoff. "I'm not buying it. They look like they're spreading out to me. One person takes the east wing, the other the west wing, and the third one takes the main hall."
Xyphias fixed Xu with a puzzled stare. "Spreading out for what?"
That, she did not know. It was, of course, possible that they were only taking a walk, but she found it hard to believe that on a night she'd been told to keep a look-out, Seifer's lackeys had decided to take a tour of Garden.
"No idea," Xu said, shaking her head. "But I wanna know what they're up to."
"You're being a little dramatic, don't you think?" Nida said. "They're only walking around, they're not doing anyth-"
"Oh, yes they are," Xyphias suddenly said, bolting for the computer at the far end of the room. A small window had popped up in the middle of the screen, flashing red. "We have a security breach."
Shit, Xu cursed inwardly. A security breach at a time like this? It couldn't be Seifer, he wasn't that big of an idiot to orchestrate a distraction on such a grand scale to keep their eyes away from the brig. Then again, subtlety had never been his forte, either. It couldn't possibly be a coincidence that someone was trying to enter Garden right when Seifer was expected to make a move.
"Where?" Xu asked, her eyes sweeping the outer ring monitors for the intruder.
"Not a physical breach," Xyphias said. "Someone's hacking into the database."
"Where in the database?"
"Huh," Xyphias said, staring at the screen in surprise. "Written exam schedules. Maybe it's not them, after all. We do get the occasional rookie hacker trying to snoop around just to prove he can-"
"Yeah, and maybe the Yuletide faeries really do bring us snow every winter," Xu quipped. "It's Seifer, sneaking around like the rat he is. Keep an eye on the breach. Don't block them, watch what they're trying to gain access to and only stop them when you really have to. We're heading down to the first floor. Shizuka, you take the medic. Nida takes the short round and I'm going for the pretty boy."
Rhys stood with his back against the wall next to a large potted plant, watching the students and staff walk along the main hall.
While Balamb Garden was normally filled with life and chatter during the day, at this hour, it was mostly the older students who were out and about as it was drawing closer to curfew. That particular situation didn't bode very well for their plans.
He would have to find someone young for what they needed to do, preferably a kid. Someone who wouldn't easily question what they were asked to do, or realize the larger implications if the Commander caught wind of what was going on.
Rhys reminded himself that he needed to be patient and waited, trying to make the best choice out of who was available. There was enough in their plan that depended on pure luck; the very least he could do was eliminate chance as best as he could.
"Can you see me?" he whispered into the microphone pinned on the neckline of his shirt.
"Hardly," said Jack on the other end of the line. "The camera can't pick you up very well from this angle. Stay there; it's a good spot. Any progress?"
"Slim pickins," Rhys replied, grimacing. "Mostly teenagers. Not many kids roaming about at this hour."
"Don't rush it, but don't wait too long either. We have ten minutes breathing room, at best."
"Got it," Rhys said, and continued to watch the student body.
He kept an eye on his watch, hoping he would be able to stay within the time frame. At some point near the six minute mark, he spotted them. Two kids, no older than eight, were making their way from the library down the hall where he was stationed; they were probably heading back to their dorms.
Rhys quickly went over what he and his team had discussed as he saw them approach. Don't call them kids; they'll think you're being condescending. And don't tell them to keep this quiet, 'cause you'll make them suspicious and they sure as hell won't keep it quiet. Don't tell them why you need this done unless they ask.
"Hey guys," he said, trying to get their attention.
One of them, a tall, red-haired kid, turned to acknowledge him. He gave his friend, a more innocent-looking blond kid, a gentle nudge with his elbow.
"Wanna make one thousand gil?" Rhys asked, holding up a crisp, blue, one thousand gil bill.
The two kids looked at each other questioningly.
"Each?" Rhys added, revealing a second bill right behind the first one.
"You got it," said the tall kid, and sporting an identical grin with his blond partner, approached Rhys. He made a move to grab the money out of his hands, but Rhys held it up higher.
"First you hear me out," he said. "I need a computer whiz and someone cool enough to do a bit of acting. You two look like you can pull it off, no sweat. Am I right?"
The two kids nodded enthusiastically. Rhys wasn't certain whether they liked having their egos stroked or if they simply wanted the money and were willing to say yes to anything.
"Okay, blond ambition, this one's for you," he began. "You know the computer lab up in the second floor classroom? You know how to use the terminals there, right?"
"Duh," said the blond kid, rolling his eyes at Rhys. "A five-year-old knows how to do that."
"You got access to a Guardian Force yet?" Rhys asked.
"Yup!" the kid declared proudly. "I can borrow Leviathan any time I want!"
"Awesome," Rhys went on. "I want you to go up to the classroom, pick any terminal you want and log in with your student account. Update your ID for access to Leviathan, then go get the stone. With me so far?"
"Pick a PC, log in, open the safe to get the summoning stone," the kid repeated.
"Excellent!" Rhys said, grinning. "Now once that is done, close it and go back to the terminal. And theeeeen," he trailed off, checking his watch. It was nearly eight twenty. It would probably be another five minutes by the time the kid got to the safe. That gave them a little over half an hour to get everything done before curfew. Cutting it close, but... "Wait until a couple of minutes to nine to go return it."
"Why do we need to do all that?" the tall kid asked.
"We're testing out a new security system for the Guardian Force safe," Rhys said. "We were supposed to have it done by today, but we fell a little behind. It's gotta be up and running by tomorrow, so we have to test it now while the classroom is empty. You up for it?"
"I guess..." the blond kid replied, looking a little less excited about the whole process. "But what am I supposed to do in there for that long?"
"You like World of War Online?" Rhys asked, referring to the popular online game.
"Yeah, but we're not allowed to play on weekdays," the kid said ruefully. "They lock up the game during the week and only let us play on weekends just for two hours each."
"Well, as a reward for helping me out," Rhys said, grinning at the kid. "I'll unlock the game. You can play while you're waiting."
"Just for today?"
"Nope. Once we unlock it it'll stay that way unless anyone finds out, so it's up to you guys to keep it on the down low. Still interested?"
"Okay, then go on and head upstairs to the classroom," Rhys said. "I'm gonna give your friend here the money; you can have it once we're done. I'm counting on you, mate. You'll pull it off?"
The blond kid let out a whoop in response and sprinted off toward the elevator, looking exhilarated.
"What am I supposed to do?" asked the tall one, watching his friend run off and looking more than a little disappointed he couldn't join him.
"You are going to play a game of Triple Triad with me while we wait," Rhys said, pulling out a stack of cards out of his pocket.
"That's it?" the tall kid asked, arching both eyebrows.
"Well, I was gonna ask you to keep a look-out on the second floor," Rhys said. "But I decided against it. Of course, if you'd rather do that than play a game with me-"
"No, no! I just- I get a thousand bucks and free WoWO just for playing cards with you?" the kid asked in disbelief.
"Go get us a couple of sodas," Rhys told the boy, handing him another bill. "I'll set up the game and wait for you here, all right?"
The boy grabbed the bill and sped off to the cafeteria, now decidedly more cheerful about the way Rhys had delegated the duties between him and his friend. Grinning, Rhys leaned down to speak into his microphone.
"Got the kid," he said. "Tell Nyx to be expecting a blond boy, eight-ish, wearing jeans and a white t-shirt with a moogle print on it."
Xu stepped inside the cafeteria, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible while she looked for Felix.
She found him by the counters, perusing the food on display. A gaggle of female cadets stood nearby, all of them stealing glances at him and whispering to one another in between giggles. Eventually, they pushed one of the girls in their midst forward, urging her on. The girl shot them an obviously fake glare, then marched on ahead, tapping him on the shoulder.
Xu watched the whole display with a grimace of disgust on her face. If there was a gene that made most women turn into insipid morons at the side of a handsome man, Xu was incredibly glad she was missing it. Honestly, he wasn't even that good-looking. He looked more like a woman, for Hyne's sake, all smooth skin, slim fingers and delicate eyelashes.
However, feminine-looking or not, if this Felix person was like most men, he would have no qualms whatsoever about taking the cadet back to his dorm. Xu decided she had seen enough of the girl's transparent attempt at flirting and stepped forward to intervene. She was not going to miss out on a chance to grill one of Seifer's men for something as silly as hormones.
"...whole line every morning, so make sure you get here early," the girl was saying as Xu approached. "Me and my friends already grabbed some, if you're int-"
"Enjoying ourselves, Bennett?" Xu said, putting up her best you're-in-trouble-now smirk.
The girl turned around, startled. "SeeD Chang! I-"
"Finished with scrub duty early tonight?" Xu supplied, cocking her head to the side. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't you supposed to be in detention from seven to nine every night until the end of November?"
"Does Instructor Prewett know you're here when you're supposed to be working?"
"Then I suggest you go and report to him that you're gallivanting around Garden instead of scrubbing the locker room floors clean with a toothbrush."
"Instructor Prewett never mentioned a tooth-"
"I mentioned a toothbrush," Xu finished, arms crossed in front of her chest. "Off you go, now."
The girl, looking extremely disappointed not only for the missed opportunity to talk to Felix, but also for the added workload, mumbled "Yes, SeeD Chang," and headed for the cafeteria exit, ignoring the inquiring looks from her friends.
Felix, who had been watching the exchange with a slightly amused grin on his face, turned to Xu. "Thanks," he said, smiling at her gratefully.
"No problem. Watch your back around here, they can be rabid at times," Xu replied. Without another word, she shifted her gave over to the glass display, pretending to look for something to order.
She didn't want to betray the fact that she had come looking for him specifically. If he had been instructed to keep an eye out, or perhaps even distract her from what was truly going on tonight, he would strike up conversation again. If not... I'll think of something, Xu thought.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Felix looking at her curiously. He looked like he was trying to figure something out. Perhaps he simply wasn't used to being ignored by women.
"You're Xu, right?" he asked.
She turned to meet his gaze. "Yes. How did you know?" she asked.
"You pretty much run the place along with Commander Leonhart," he explained. "I've heard of you."
"...And?" she said, looking at him knowingly.
"…...and Seifer may have mentioned you," Felix admitted, grinning.
"Of course he did," Xu said, one hand resting against her hip. "Let me guess... the word 'bitch' came up a lot."
"Uhh... I plead the fifth," Felix said, flashing her a grin that was most likely designed to make lesser women keel over.
If Xu was being honest with herself, her knees buckled just the slightest bit.
"Care to prove him wrong?" Felix added.
That sobered Xu up immediately. Did he just...? "What do you mean?" she asked.
"Seifer is being a wanker and refused to show us around," Felix explained. "I figure I'm going to be staying here till March, so I can't lock myself up in my dorm and wait until he feels like going out. So, if you're not busy with anything, d'you wanna take a walk with me, give me a bit of a tour? Won't take long."
Xu gave him a long, calculating look. Was this flirting, a chance to scope her out, or something altogether different? "How does that relate to me proving I'm not a bitch?" she asked.
Felix shrugged. "I'm a pretty good judge of character. I think I'll be able to tell if Seifer was telling the truth or not after spending some time with you."
Xu carefully considered her options. It didn't take a genius to see that Felix was a perfect choice for a spy placed opposite a woman. He was handsome, he could be polite, soft-spoken... She briefly wondered just how many female SeeDs had been taken in by the charming package and had promptly spilled whatever secrets he'd been after in the past.
Of course, it was always possible that all he needed to do was distract her from what was about to happen –whatever that may be- and taking a walk with him would be falling right into the trap. Then again, she reasoned, Xyphias was watching the camera network and he would undoubtedly let her know the moment he saw anything suspicious. After all, she was supposed to let Seifer's men think they had them fooled.
The best she could do right now, she decided, was accept the offer and see if she could learn anything about the Galbadian newcomers. "I don't even know your name," she said, trying to sound a little coy.
Felix shook his head in exasperation. "Right. Name. Hyne, I completely forgot," he said, holding out his hand for her to shake. "Felix Von Troy. And you're Xu...?"
"Chang," Xu said, shaking hands with Felix. "Well, all right. I guess I could spare some time to show you around," she added, checking her watch. "We still have little more than half an hour before curfew."
"Thanks," Felix said, beaming at her. "I'll just get us a sandwich or something to eat on the way. What'll you have?"
"Tuna melt," she said, digging into her pocket to fish out some money.
Felix waved off her intention to pay for her share with a flick of his hand. "It's on me," he said. "Just give me a minute and we'll be on our way."
"Sure," said Xu, and she leaned against the marble column behind her, watching him closely.
Though he was never one to complain, Nyx had to admit; he was getting a little tired of waiting inside a cold vent, bent into an uncomfortable position. Jack had wired in to let him know he should be expecting a blond kid any moment now, and Nyx couldn't wait until he was able move again.
Watching through the grid, he kept an eye on the classroom below. For nearly ten minutes now, not a single student had entered; they were no doubt occupied with more fun activities until curfew. It gave Nyx enough time to loosen the grid in preparation, but once that was dealt with, he was left with little else to do other than stare at the smooth, grey surface of the vent.
At long last, the cadet Jack had mentioned showed up, stomping across the room in a state of glee. He fit the description, anyway: close to eight, blond, clad in a pair of jeans and a white t-shirt depicting a moogle at the front. If he wasn't the boy in question, Nyx was about to find out.
Thankfully, the child hurried over to one of the terminals and after a few seconds of typing, stood up to approach the large cabinet in the far back of the classroom. There was no doubt about it; he was the right person.
Nyx inched up closer to the grid, the spell already forming in his mind. According to Jack, the cabinet used to store the Guardian Force summoning stones was protected by a strict security system. Unless opened with a valid SeeD ID, alarms were rigged to go off and the whole room locked up immediately, effectively stopping the thief from escaping. It was futile to set up a complicated safe for something that needed to be accessed by young students, so the Balamb Garden SeeDs had decided to enforce security on the room instead of the actual cabinet.
Nyx only had a small window of time to act. He had to access the cabinet only after the cadet got it open, and he had to retrieve the stone he was after as soon as possible. Nyx prepared himself, ready to make his move as soon as the safe was open.
The boy slid his SeeD ID through the slit on the security lock and the light turned green. He opened the safe and began looking for the summoning stone he was after.
Now, Nyx said to himself, and aimed the Stop spell straight for the child. The spell's effect was immediate; the boy froze in place, but to any onlooker, it would look as if he was still perusing the stones. There was no time to waste, however: whoever was watching the camera feed in the surveillance room would get suspicious if the child remained completely still for more than a couple of minutes.
"You have it?" he whispered into his microphone.
"Yeah," Jack said. "I'm uploading the still to your phone right now."
As quickly as he could, Nyx pushed the grid out and carefully placed it down. With his last Float spell still in effect, he crawled out of the vent, speeding across the ceiling. He reached the other end of the classroom, right above the Instructor's desk, where the security camera had been set up, watching the whole room. He pulled out the phone he had been given by Jack and repeated the process in his head. Unhook the camera, plug the phone in. Do it fast enough, it won't register as more than a blip.
Biting down on his lower lip, Nyx pulled out the jack connecting the camera to the network and swiftly plugged the phone in.
"It's done. Go, go, GO!"
With the camera network now registering nothing but a still image of the boy standing in front of the open cabinet, Nyx cast Dispel on himself, landing onto the floor with a dull thud. He sprinted across the classroom, coming to a stop right behind the boy.
Immediately, he examined the stones, looking for the right one. The Diablos summoning stone, Seifer claimed, was a sleek onyx one. Among a sea of brightly colored stones, it wasn't hard to discern. He reached over the cadet's shoulder and pulled it out.
The stone reacted as soon as his fingers closed around it, emitting a faint wave of coldness. For a second there, he feared something far worse was about to happen. He'd had no experience with Guardian Forces in the past, and had no idea if the stone was supposed to acknowledge his presence at all in the first place. His every hair standing on end, Nyx froze, watching his palm closely.
The stone's temperature didn't change; it simply lay there, looking plain, black and, for all appearances, like any regular stone.
"Grey Two? Are you nearly done? It's already been forty seconds, you have to hurry."
Letting out a breath he wasn't even aware he'd been holding, Nyx placed the stone into his backpack and dashed across the classroom once more. He cast Float on himself again, rising all the way up to the ceiling. He plugged the phone out, putting everything back in place by reconnecting the camera, and sped back to the vent.
He aimed a quick Dispel at the boy, lingering only long enough to see if it had worked.
Completely oblivious that anything whatsoever had happened, the boy picked out the stone he was after and locked the safe, returning to the terminal he had been using a couple of minutes ago.
Certain he had succeeded, Nyx crawled his way down the vent, hurrying back to the dorm where Seifer and Jack awaited.
Spotting a free bench in the distance, Felix pointed straight ahead. "There, found an empty one," he told Xu. "Let's go take a seat."
He sat down on the wooden bench, looking around the quad curiously. It was nearly pitch dark outside, not to mention a little cold, but he and Xu had both decided to finish their snacks before heading off to see the rest of Balamb Garden.
Xu took a seat next to him, carefully tearing the wrapping off her sandwich before taking a large bite.
Getting her away from the main hall was only he first step, Felix mused. He was certain Xu had been sent to keep an eye on him, and he didn't have the faintest idea what he was going to say to maintain the illusion that all he wanted was some company. What on earth was there to talk about with a woman he didn't know?
"Pretty different," he said, still examining the quad.
"What's different?" Xu asked.
"This whole place," Felix replied. "Not at all like Galbadia Garden."
"Well, you have a quad for one thing," Felix said. "We don't. There isn't really a place to hang out in other than the cafeteria. Or the basketball and hockey fields, if you count those."
"It's nice, I guess."
"Yeah... nice," Felix said, staring at his sandwich. Great, now what?
He could tell the whole situation was extremely awkward for her, too. Barely two minutes into their walk and they were at a loss for what to say next. Thankfully, as Felix was agonizing over a new subject, Xu spoke.
"So how long have you been a SeeD?" she asked.
"Six years," Felix answered. "Made it when I was seventeen and I'm twenty three now. You?"
"Same," Xu said. "Well," she added, licking some mayonnaise off her lower lip. "I made it at sixteen and I'm twenty two now, but yeah, six years, too."
"Wow, sixteen," Felix said, impressed. "That's young. You must be pretty g-"
"Seifer's nearly at the quad."
Felix nearly choked on his mouthful. If Xu had heard Jack's voice coming in through the hidden earpiece, she didn't show it. Wanting to avoid disaster either way, Felix suddenly sprang up, shoving the rest of his sandwich into his mouth and wrinkling the wrapping paper into a little ball.
"I'ngh gun. 'Oo?"
Xu looked up at him, both her eyebrows arched. "What?"
"He's invisible, but he can still bump into people, so make sure you keep her away from the hatch. Scratch your nose if you heard me."
Felix swallowed the large bite with some difficulty, scratching his nose. He coughed a little, cleared his throat, then addressed Xu again. "I said I'm done. You?"
"Not yet, but if you want to go-"
"No, no, it's fine!" Felix hurried to say. "I'll wait for you, take your time. Just wondering if you were done so I could throw this along with yours in the garbage," he said, indicating the little ball of wrapping paper in his hand. "Be right back," he said, and made his way to one of the garbage bins nearby.
With his back turned to Xu, Felix had time to compose himself somewhat. If Seifer was already on his way, it meant that Nyx's part in getting Diablos had been a success. Finding a way to work without being seen by the cameras was their biggest issue, one they had to resolve using various methods; one of them was using Diablos's infamous ability to turn the person junctioned invisible to both humans and beasts. And conceivably cameras.
There were only two ways down to the MD level. One of them was, naturally, through the elevator. Even with the invisibility aspect on the table, using the elevator was out of the question; doors opening and elevators operating of their own accord would raise suspicions.
This left them with the only other option: the waterways. According to Jack's blueprints, the waterways running throughout Balamb Garden were all directed toward the quad. The water went down a small waterfall and over to the MD level, where it was cleansed and pumped back up to the ground floor again.
Getting down to the MD level was Seifer's problem. All Felix needed to concern himself with at the moment, was making sure Xu stayed out of the way so Seifer had a clear path to access the waterway maintenance hatch under the waterfall.
Felix tossed the wrapping paper into the garbage bin and was about to get back to Xu and keep her occupied, when she showed up right next to him.
"I'm done, too," Xu said, tossing the wrapping of her sandwich in as well. "Shall we?"
"Uhhhh... No?" Felix said, turning around to face her.
"No?" Xu repeated, frowning at him. "Didn't you-?"
"Yes. Buuuut, why don't we stick around a little longer?" he suggested. Friggin' Hyne, did she have to finish her damned sandwich now? Talk about horrible timing. "It's nice out."
"It's the coldest winter in nearly a hundred years, according to the news," Xu said in a dead-pan voice.
"Technically, it's not winter yet. Still November," Felix said, grinning. Xu did not look amused. Damn, tough crowd. "You want my jacket?" he offered.
"Bloody hell, are you trying to blow your damned cover? What the heck are you saying?"
"You're not wearing a jacket," Xu pointed out.
Well, that much was true. He was dressed in the casual SeeD attire and taking out his uniform jacket meant walking around in a tank top. "I meant this one," he said, pointing at the jacket of his uniform and trying to will his voice not to crack.
"Are you serious?" Xu asked, looking at him as if she feared for his sanity. "You'll freeze."
"Hey, I'm Trabian," he said, grinning. "I'm used to the cold."
"You don't sound Trabian."
For fuck's sake- "I've been living in Galbadia for many years," Felix said. "I hide the accent well. Want me to say something in Trabian?"
"Because I'm starting to think you're high as a kite," Xu said, seizing him up.
"Seifer's in. End the torture now."
"I'm not, I was just trying to be friendly," Felix said, resisting the urge to let out a sigh of relief. "Anyway, you're right, we'd better get going."
Before Xu could say more, Felix grabbed her by the hand and hurried toward the exit of the quad. Xu yanked her hand away, looking bewildered and more than a little angry, but she remained silent and followed him nonetheless.
With a dull thud, Seifer landed on the concrete floor below.
He swerved slightly on the spot, glancing to his right. A few centimeters off target and he would have fallen straight into the water. The maintenance point was nothing but a few square feet of concrete that spread below the hatch. The panel controlling the flow of the waterways was located right against the wall vertical to the floor, and the rest of the room was filled with water.
He didn't bother contacting his peers. He was about to get even wetter, so the small earpiece would have to stay safely tucked into the ziploc bag. Besides, the waterfall-like sound of the water current flowing down through the grates was deafening; he wouldn't be able to hear a thing.
Crouching down by the edge of the floor, Seifer examined the small facility carefully. According to the blueprints Jack had dug up, the water was being led down to the MD level and into a refinement plant. The only way down to the plant that didn't require someone to be a member of the maintenance staff was through the grate the water current was flowing through, and he had no idea what he was going to face once –and if- he managed to get the grate open.
Making sure every delicate piece of equipment he was carrying was secure in the waterproof bag, Seifer mentally removed Diablos's concealment ability since there were no cameras to watch out of in the maintenance room. He took a deep breath and dove straight into the water below.
The moment he fell in, the ice-cold water attacked him mercilessly; every single pore on his body screamed in protest. He panicked, for just a split second, and took in a sharp breath that filled his mouth with water, before gathering his wits and making his way up. His head broke the surface and he went into a coughing fit, trying to breathe while his whole body rocked with tremors.
He paused just long enough to regulate his breathing, then set about trying to dislodge the grate and end the torture as soon as possible.
He was thankful to see that the grate wasn't bolted in place, but it was still large enough to make it impossible for him to pull it out with his bare hands. Try as he might, he wasn't able to move it a single inch, and the freezing water made him all the more impatient. Realizing it was time to resort to his stock of magic, Seifer pulled his hand back and cast a Float spell.
There was a loud groan, the sound of metal rubbing against metal, and the grate lifted a few millimeters, now effectively hovering between the metal frame. With one hand, Seifer pulled hard and the grate slipped out with ease. As soon as the obstacle was out of the way, the water current rushed through the gaping hole, carrying Seifer along with it.
He reached out blindly, trying to hold on to something. His hand closed around the metal frame that had been holding the grate, but years upon years of water passing through had coated it with a thick layer of slime. His fingers slipped, and before he could do more than gasp, he was free-falling down through a dark shaft.
Float, float, float, float, floatfloatfloat- "FLOAT!"
Like someone had wrapped a hook around his navel and jerked upward, Seifer felt himself come to a sudden halt in mid-air, his breath hitching in his throat.
He had fallen far enough that the scant light coming through the open grate all the way up wasn't illuminating a single thing. He couldn't see what was around him or where he was going, but at the very least, he was descending at a slow pace and was out of immediate danger. More than anything, he was glad he weighed enough so that the spell couldn't carry him upwards, but only barely halted a rapid descent downward; otherwise all their planning would've been for naught.
A sudden wave of hysterical laughter overtook him, as the adrenaline rush settled down and he was able to comprehend what had just happened. He was frozen, balls to bones, he had nearly suffered a heart-attack, he was struggling to breathe, and yet he could. Not. Stop. Laughing.
By the time he was able to compose himself, he had floated down for what had felt like at least a couple of dozen feet, and there was still no end in sight. Fuck, how deep is this thing? he wondered, and decided to start trying to find a way through to the core.
He knew there was a wall close-by, so he leaned all the way to his right, stretching as much as he could to see if he could touch anything solid. He wondered whether his current situation was anything like the zero-gravity field generated by the Mobile Type 8 robot in the Lunatic Pandora. Could he actually swim through the air, or would he spend a few futile minutes, thrashing about and achieving absolutely nothing?
There was probably a very lengthy chapter on the mechanics of the Float spell somewhere in his SeeD books, but he had never really read any of that shit thoroughly enough for anything to stick. Someone like Manu or Trepe would probably know exactly what to do right now.
Fuck it; I'll give it a shot. It's not like anyone can see me flapping my arms around like a cartoon.
Feeling incredibly stupid, Seifer stretched his arms out and swung them back roughly, in a motion similar to swimming. In the stark darkness, it was hard to see if he was making any progress, but he felt like he had moved. He tried it a few more times, becoming increasingly convinced that it was all in his head and nothing was really happening, until he swung himself to the right one last time, and his head bumped against something solid.
Ignoring the blooming pain, he threw his arms forward, trying to latch on to anything that might be protruding. His left hand closed around something, something sleek and hard, but he didn't even stop to wonder what it was. All that mattered was that he had come to a stop at long last, his legs hovering behind him like he was suspended in space.
With his free hand, he reached over his shoulder to his pack. It was probably going to take a while to open it one-handed, but if he hurried, he might slip and that was the very last thing he wanted right now. After a few minutes of fumbling around, he managed to dip his hand into the pack and pawed at the few objects inside until his fingers clasped something slim and cylindrical. He pulled it out, ran his thumb over the item for a couple of seconds and a thin ray of light shot out, piecing through the darkness.
Let there be light, Seifer thought with a grin.
He placed the small flashlight between his teeth to free his second hand, and reached forward to grab onto the mysterious object that had halted his fall. It turned out to be a thick metallic rod bent into a 'U' shape, fastened against the wall.
Okay... Now let's see just where the hell we are, Seifer said to himself, and began to move his head around to redirect the beam of the flashlight.
What he had initially perceived to be a shaft he had fallen through was actually a giant room. From what little he could make out, and in combination with what he had seen in the blueprints Jack had shown him, Seifer realized he was now stuck in the area separating Balamb Garden's outer walls and the large cylindrical room that made up the MD Level. Jack had known this empty space would be there, but its purpose still made little sense to Seifer.
Why use all this room to redirect the water to the plant below? Why not simply use pipes?
Shaking his head, Seifer pointed the light at the wall in front of him and the metal rod he was holding onto. The rod turned out to be a single step of a ladder going all the way up to the hole he had fallen through. The wall itself wasn't, as Seifer had expected, smooth. In fact, it didn't look like a wall at all.
He had to double, and triple, and quadruple check just to make sure he wasn't seeing things, but the barrier before him resembled, for lack of a better term, a block of flats. It was separated in levels, much like a building would be separated in floors, and everywhere he looked, he could see thick, round slabs of glass jutting out of the green metal that made up the wall. They were similar to the portholes of a ship.
The shelter, Seifer suddenly realized. Holy shit.
He remembered when, two years ago, the mechanics in Galbadia Garden had told him they could make the academy fly. He hadn't given it a second thought back then, not at all curious about the sort of engines hidden in the bowels of the giant structure. All he'd cared about was making the damn thing airborne. Earlier this year, during a discussion with Jonah, he would learn that all Gardens were, in fact, shelters.
The reason this wasn't common knowledge, Jonah had told him, was because the original structures came from Centra. The mechanics who had built them were long dead and they had taken whatever additional secrets the Gardens may hide to their graves.
So this is why the blueprints showed so many entrances connecting the air pocket to the inner core, Seifer realized. If everything he could see before his eyes were rooms to house the people using the shelter, it made sense that they connected to the center of the MD Level.
The only problem right now was getting into one of these rooms.
First things first...
Seifer closed his eyes and tightened his grip around the metal rod. With a small mental flick, he cast Dispel on himself, and his body regained its gravitational pull once more. He secured his legs through the ladder and against the wall, giving his arms a well-needed break as he took a seat on one of the steps.
He slipped the flashlight into his pocket, and went through the small supply of equipment stored within the ziploc bag to retrieve his earpiece. He put it on and started skipping through static, hoping he could get a strong enough signal to reach Jack.
"Grey Zero, this is Grey Leader. Grey Zero, do you copy?" he said into the microphone.
He had to repeat the process for two very long, agonizing minutes, until he got a response.
"This is Grey Zero. Where are you?" came Jack's familiar voice.
Seifer looked around at the vast room, grinning. "You're not gonna believe this," he said. "It's a shelter, just like Galbadia Garden."
"I'm in the area in between," Seifer said. "It separates the walls from the inner core. The whole thing is lined with rooms, it's fucking unreal."
"Can you see any way in?"
"That's where you come in," Seifer said. "I don't exactly have much of a light source and it'll take hours to search the whole thing for a possible entrance. Check the blueprints."
Irvine felt he was a rather open-minded fellow on all aspects, including what he chose to eat. As someone who liked to occasionally cook, he had tried his share of strange delicacies from all over the world, including some that only he and Zell –and some times Rinoa- would dare touch.
But he drew the line at this.
When the dish was set on the table before him, part of him already knew he was going to refuse to eat it. The contents of the dish he'd just been served looked a little too close to something one would find digging through the internal organs of an animal; the substance on the plate was white, gooey and he could even spot little blood vessels on it. Cringing, he leaned down to Selphie and asked her what it was.
Selphie gave him a sympathetic grin, telling him only the name of the dish: shirako. When he asked for more details, she giggled, the sake-induced redness on her cheeks spreading all over her face, and she reached up to whisper in his ear what exactly shirako was.
And then Irvine politely refused to eat a single bite off that dish.
"Oh lighten up," Selphie said, picking up her chopsticks to try a bit of shirako.
"You eat that thing then you can forget about kissing me for a month," he said, glaring daggers at her.
"I would've thought you'd be a little more adventurous," Selphie said, letting out a sigh. "As an amateur cook-"
"Shh!" he hissed.
The fact that Irvine could cook –quite well at that- was something only he and Selphie knew. When he'd first cooked for her, Selphie had been delighted, eager to share his little secret with all their friends, but Irvine had asked her not to tell a soul. If any of the others found out, then it wouldn't be long before Zell did, and Irvine didn't think he could quite keep up with Zell's appetite, or his aggravatingly effective puppy-eyes.
He didn't know if this was something Zell did without realizing it, or if he was secretly far sneakier than anyone suspected, but his puppy-eyes were the stuff of legend. No-one could resist his demands once he turned on the wounded puppy charm. Considering how bummed he looked these days, the cowboy knew that if Zell caught so much as a whiff of his culinary prowess, he would be stuck cooking for him non-stop for a whole semester at least.
"Sorry, sorry, I forgot!" Selphie said, flashing him an apologetic grin and downing her cup of sake. "Did you try the unadon?"
"Yeah. I liked those, but we're out," Irvine said, looking around the table just in case a waiter had brought a new plate.
As he was looking for something appetizing enough to try next, Selphie let out an excited gasp of surprise next to him.
"What, what?" he asked, trying to follow her gaze and see what had brought her so much glee.
"Sir Laguna!" Selphie said, turning toward the head of the table. "You're serving us fugu?" she asked, clutching her chest with both hands.
Laguna smiled at her, but shook his head. "No, sorry. I'm afraid this is plain old mackerel sashimi; Elle's favorite," he said, smiling at his ward fondly. "I used to have a chef qualified to prepare fugu in the premises, but I was forced to let him go. My advisors don't think it's wise to keep fugu in the palace in case someone actually tries to do me in," he finished, chuckling.
"Awwwww," Selphie said, looking a little disappointed. "Ah well. This looks delicious, either way. Kampai!" she said, raising her cup to him.
Laguna reciprocated the gesture with a tilt of his head, then went back to his conversation with Ellone and Rinoa.
"What the hell is fugu?" Irvine asked her. "And sashimi?"
"That, is sashimi," Selphie said, pointing at the platter one of the waiters was now serving.
Compared to most of the other dishes on the table, this one was by far the most plain, Irvine thought. There was little garnish to speak of and at first, he was puzzled as to why such a large plate was chosen since there seemed to be very little food on it. The moment the waiter placed it down, however, Irvine saw what was so special about it.
"Sashimi is the method they use to cut the fish, see?" Selphie said, refilling her cup with more sake.
The fish had been cut into small, petal-like pieces and arranged to form a giant chrysanthemum on the plate. The small fillets had been sliced so thin, that they were nearly transparent, making it easy to discern the pattern of the platter underneath. The only garnish on the plate was a pair of fragrant, lime-like fruit cut in halves and a small pile of a white substance which Selphie told him was the fish's skin.
"Huh," Irvine said, giving the dish a rather appreciative nod. "So why did you think this was vugu, or whatever it's called?"
"Well, you can serve lots of fish sashimi and fugu sashimi is one of the most notorious Esthari plates," Selphie said.
"Why notorious?" Irvine asked, fearing the answer was going to be something as off-putting as shirako.
"Fugu is poisonous," Selphie explained. "I think it's called pufferfish in Balamese. It's the one with the bugging eyes that blows up into a spiked ball when it senses danger," she went on, acting out the descriptions with her hands. "The poison contained in just one fugu's skin and organs is enough to kill every single person in this room and then some. It doesn't kill fast, but there's no antidote for it."
"And you want to eat that?" Irvine asked, aghast.
"A trained chef can remove all the poison," Selphie said, waving a hand dismissively. "But the dish is always a bit of a gamble, because what if the chef made a mistake?" she went on, looking inappropriately excited at the notion. "It's a pretty delicate process, so you're practically trusting him with your life when you take that first bite. It's rumored that some of the best fugu chefs out there leave just a tiiiiny hint of poison on it to cause a bit of numbness on the lips and tongue as you eat it. Cool, huh?" she finished, chortling. "I gotta go pee," she said and stood up, wobbling on the spot.
"Yeah... awesome," Irvine muttered, as he watched her stumble out of the dining room in an –admittedly decent- effort not to trip all over her two feet.
Panting, Seifer fell into the dark room before him and crashed onto the floor, bringing up a cloud of dust with him.
"You okay? What was that thud?"
"Wait... for... a... sec..." he wheezed, wiping his sweaty forehead and coughing as he became enveloped in a dusty wreath.
Finding a way in had been the easy part. There was an emergency exit on one of the floors, leading straight into one of the corridors in the complex. The hard part had been getting the damned thing open. Despite all the advanced technology the Centraic people had poured into making Garden airborne, there was no circuit box to mess with, no keypad to feed data into. The emergency exit had been secured with nothing but a manually controlled wheel.
Son-of-a-bitch that burns, Seifer thought, rubbing his aching muscles. It had taken forever to open the door and the moment he had, he had collapsed onto the corridor, exhausted. When was the last time anyone cleaned this shithole? he grumbled, still coughing as the dust surrounding him settled.
The corridor was nearly as dark as the shaft had been, but there was light coming from somewhere far off within the inner core. Seifer spent a couple of minutes staring at the dark ceiling, suddenly very aware of the fact that he was lying on a decades-old rug of dust and Hyne knew what other sort of filth, but at the moment, he couldn't move a single muscle.
At least it's warm in here, he thought, thankful for the change in temperature.
"Tic, toc, Grey Leader."
"Hey, here's a thought," Seifer spat into the microphone. "Let's dip you in a pool of freezing water, throw your ass down into a dark shaft, make you turn a fucking wheel rusted to all holy hell and then lie in seven fucking inches of dust. See how you like it."
"Grey Two volunteered to go instead. It's not my fault you want to do everything yourself."
"Yeah, yeah..." Seifer drawled and, very reluctantly, pushed himself off the floor.
"By the way, if you've just been covered in dust, it might be a good idea to take some time to clean yourself up," Jack said.
"I thought you liked me dirty, hot stuff," Seifer quipped and stretched, groaning at the way his body protested under the strain.
"You may be invisible to the camera, but if you leave behind muddy marks, someone's bound to notice."
Seifer had a sudden vision of a trail of brown footprints showing up in front of a completely befuddled Balamb Garden employee. Huh. Well... he's a pain in the arse, but at least he has a brain. "Yeah, give me a couple of minutes."
Since he wasn't really carrying anything to wipe himself clean with, Seifer opted to wear his clothes inside out, with no small amount of disgust at the idea. As he got out of and back into his clothes, he kept picturing a large, luxurious tub filled to the brim with warm, clean water and a mountain of foam. Bubble baths were a chick thing as far as he was concerned, but right now, he longed for one more than anything in the world, questioned sexuality be damned.
"You ready?" Jack asked.
"And filthier than I've ever been," Seifer said, cringing. "Okay, where do I go now?" he asked, as he reached into his mind to re-apply invisibility.
"Head down the corridor on your left and continue down until you've reached the third intersection. Turn, then head down that way and you should see the exit to the inner core."
Seifer did as he was instructed, counting the hallways he came across. First intersection... Second... Third. He walked down the narrow corridor as quietly as he could. He could see light in the distance, and if there was a light source, there could very well be a guard nearby, so he had to be silent.
"Okay, checking the feed... I don't see anyone out there," Jack said. "There should be guards in the brig, but there's no-one outside. Still, try to be as quiet as you can."
Once he reached the doorway that separated the shelter from the center of the MD Level, Seifer ventured a peek outside through the glass porthole at the top. Just like Jack had said, he could see no-one outside. Opening the door right now was still a tremendous risk, but one they had to take; if anyone was watching through that particular camera in the surveillance room, it was game over. He was banking on the chance that the man in charge couldn't look at all feeds at once, as well the darkness to mask his view somewhat. If they were lucky enough, he would go out unnoticed and they'd be able to edit that out later on.
Seifer took a deep breath. Carefully, he pushed the door open, clenching his teeth in the hopes that there would be no sound.
"Okay, I see you..." Jack whispered. "Still no-one there. Better make it quick."
When he had pushed the door far enough to make a sizable opening, Seifer slipped through and swiftly closed it behind him. There was a gentle thud, but nothing that was going to be heard over the dull hum of the engines roaring a few floors below.
"Are you out?"
"Yes," Seifer whispered back.
"Okay, great. Go down the ladder and behind you, you'll see a large opening. It should lead down to the engine room and the server."
Seifer followed Jack's instructions, his heartbeat thundering against his chest as he heard the distant voices of people for the first time since he had set foot in Garden's underground. As of now, he had to be very careful. Even if he couldn't be seen, he could very easily be heard. No SeeD would stay impassive at the source of a strange sound, even when they couldn't see anything with their own eyes. Invisibility was a rare thing even with magic involved, but it wouldn't be foreign to them.
Just like Jack had said, at the end of the large opening, Seifer found a ladder that led straight down to the engine room. Luckily, or perhaps unluckily, since he wouldn't be able to hear Jack very well, the engines were making more than enough noise to mask his footsteps.
The twin turbines that kept Garden afloat twisted and whirred incessantly, large enough to take up almost the entire chamber. What little space they didn't occupy had been turned into a small room lined with plexi glass. There were two SeeDs sitting inside in front of a desk, staring at a TV screen, beers in their hands. Behind them, a large server crawling with wires had been set up.
Seifer stepped forward to take a closer look. The men were watching a Sphere game, he could see. Timber Toramas versus Balamb Bombs. Balamb was winning, four to one. Shit. I had money on that game. Bloody Durgen can't make a decent pass to save his fucking l- Oh, yeah, the mission. Right.
He retreated, making his way back to the ladder, which, he figured, was safe enough a distance to try talking to Jack without being overheard.
"I'm at the server," he said, hoping Jack could hear him. "What do I do?"
"Get the spider out," Jack told him. "You're gonna have to stick it on various conduits on the server to find the one we're looking for. You'll know it's the right one when the screen on the PDA switches to one of the rooms in the MD level. Use the camera; I'll help you out."
"Yeah, that's not gonna happen," Seifer said. "The server is in a small room and I have to go through two guys to get there. They're watching TV, but I don't think I can actually slip in between them without them noticing."
"So... we're pretty much fucked."
"Don't just say yeah! We didn't do through all this crap to give up now, there must be—"
But Seifer never heard the end of that sentence, as at that precise moment, the lights in the room flickered once, twice. There was a very odd sound, like air being sucked out of a room, and the turbines slowed down, their whirring coming to a stop as they failed and completely shut down.
And then everything went dark.
Xu was getting impatient.
Trying to extract information from a suspect when said suspect had to think she was simply being friendly was no easy feat. So far, all she had learned was that Felix Von Troy had transferred to G-Garden when his family moved to Galbadia, he had a dog named Chiko whom he had left with his grandmother when they moved, he supported the Glace Grendels and had once won twenty thousand gil on a bet where the Grendels won ten seconds before the end of the game.
Once the tour was over, she mused, she would have to find an excuse to get him someplace more private. Trying to extract his secrets in front of a crowd in the middle of the hallway was impossible.
"You should definitely place an order for the Magnum series," Felix was saying as they exited the library. "It's not as widely known as Jerry Porter, but it's fun and really addicting."
"You read Jerry Porter?" Xu asked, arching an eyebrow.
"Eh, I've read a book or two. Mostly seen the movies," he said.
Great, now we'll move on to literature, Xu drawled inwardly. Next thing she knew, they were going to be discussing favorite foods, still miles away from everything she wanted to find out.
The thought of getting him drunk occurred to her then. It wasn't exactly subtle, but hell, neither was she, and she knew she was getting nowhere by asking about his damned hobbies. There was simply no way to turn a casual conversation into business talk without arousing suspicions. Beating it all out of him, while tempting and far more effective, was impractical right now.
"Hey, how about a-?" she began, intending to suggest getting a drink, but the words died on her mouth when a loud hiss from above got her attention.
One of the lights on the ceiling fizzled and went out. One by one, the other lamps followed suit, all failing, until the whole structure was rendered dark.
The crowd around Xu let out a collective gasp and then all hell broke loose.
Selphie was fully aware of the fact that her outfit traditionally went with particularly demure, lady-like conduct. There was nothing lady-like, however, about the swear-word that left her lips the moment the power went out.
Still cursing as she wobbled around in the darkness, she pulled her underwear up, hoping she hadn't accidentally caught her dress with it and was about to walk out of the bathroom with her ass hanging out for all the world to see. Arms held out in front of her, she tried to make her way out of the bathroom, hoping she could return to the dining room without falling on her face on the way there.
There were no lights to speak of anywhere in the vicinity. What she assumed was a blackout had clearly affected the whole city.
Isn't there a back-up generator in this place? Geeeeeeez.
Eventually, she managed to reach the door. At least, that's what she thought it was, as the moment she threw her weight on it, it swung forward and propelled her straight into something cold and hard. The copious amounts of alcohol in her bloodstream weren't helping her coordination as it was, and if she kept bumping into every other wall on her way to the dining room, she feared she was going to throw up all over the expensive Centraic rugs decorating the hallways.
She had no idea whatsoever if she was even heading in the right direction. She could hear voices and loud thumping noises somewhere in the distance; she guessed the staff were running back and forth in an effort to find a light source until power was restored.
Gluing herself up against the wall to keep from falling over, Selphie walked on ahead, following the source of the sound. Her eyes were starting to get used to the darkness and she could make out shapes, something that proved to be a Hynesent when she narrowly avoided an ornamental end table holding what was probably a priceless Shumi vase.
After what felt like a really long time, the noises and voices grew louder, a good sign that she was getting close to people. Tentatively, she reached out with one hand, pawing the surface before her to try and make out whether it was a wall or a door.
The answer came to her when the surface gave in and she fell forward, bringing down a clutter of objects and people along with her. There was a loud crash, something that felt like an elbow smacked her right across the chin and she landed on something soft, spongy and putrid.
"Did you do that?" Seifer whispered into his microphone.
"The blackout?" asked Jack. "No way. I don't even know what the hell- Whoa."
"It's not just here," Jack said. "There's a power failure all over Esthar. Damn... I can't see a thing out there."
Unfortunately, Seifer could. The engine room clearly had a small back-up generator of its own. Not enough to supply all of Garden, but enough to keep the server and a few emergency lights running.
The two SeeDs were already working to restore power to the whole structure. Seifer couldn't tell what the extent of the damage was, but under the circumstances, he had to assume the technicians would be able to resolve the issue soon. He had a small opening to make his move; waiting around while weighing his options would achieve nothing other than waste precious time.
"I guess B-Garden was getting power straight from Esthar's generators to save up for the journ-"
"Quiet!" Seifer hissed into the microphone and, as quietly as he could, hurried over to the server room.
"What are you-?"
"The technicians are distracted, so I'm going in. Now shut up," Seifer explained.
As quietly as he could, Seifer began to move toward the server room. The small back-up generator was providing nothing more than a gentle hum to mask his footsteps; he had to tread lightly.
"Awww maaaaaan," one of the technicians groaned, hunched over a hatch below the twin turbines. "The whole thing's fried. We're gonna have to replace it," he said, yanking out a part of the engine Seifer didn't recognize or care about.
Looking over his shoulder to make sure both men were looking elsewhere, Seifer slinked into the small room and hurried over to the server. It looked more like a living thing than a machine, the way hundreds of wires spilled out from the large black towers that made up the structure. Every tower was labeled, naming the section of Balamb Garden it represented. Seifer came to a stop before the tower that read 'Surv. Ntwk.'
He stared at the jumble of bright blue conduits before him, cringing. He was supposed to pin the microscopic camera somewhere on his shirt front so Jack could help him find the wire, but with the lights out, it wouldn't do much good. Bugger the camera, he thought and began examining the wires. Jack had told him to try each and every one of them in turn to find the conduit that gave them access to the MD level, but time was a luxury he couldn't afford right now.
Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, he thought, and picked out a random conduit. As quickly as he could, he clipped the spider on the wire and turned on the receiver. The screen lit up, displaying the feed of the camera monitoring the infirmary.
Cursing under his breath, he picked out another random wire and repeated the process. Library feed.
Come on, come oooooon... He tried another one: Squall's office. He was beginning to think it was a bad idea to waste time down there when he could use the distraction caused by the power failure to get to the brig unnoticed. Without access to the camera feed they would be unable to edit out his visit to the prisoner's cell, but he could always destroy the camera and be done with it. It was a messy solution, one that would definitely merit an investigation, but when faced with the possibility of getting nothing whatsoever done instead, Seifer preferred to take a small risk and work with the hand he was dealt.
He was about to give up and follow his own advice, when the receiver's screen changed once again, now showing the front of the brig.
Wasting no more time in the server room, Seifer slipped out and bolted for the ladder. He was glad to see the power had yet to be restored, so perhaps getting into the brig would prove to be easier than he originally thought.
"It's done," he told Jack, while climbing up the ladder and willing himself to move as fast as he could before the lights turned back on.
"You did it? YOU DID IT!"
Seifer was so elated himself that he didn't even bother chastizing Jack for yelling right into his ear. "I did it," he said. "I'm off to the brig. Get to work, you'll need to switch feeds in a few minutes."
With a groan, Selphie lifted her head off the slime-covered mess before her, fighting the urge to heave.
"Fucking Hyne, what is that smell?" she wondered out loud, her voice cutting through the whispers of Esthari all around her.
She had no idea where she was or who was in there with her, but it was safe to say this wasn't the dining room; she couldn't make out a single familiar voice. Not wasting any time trying to get her bearings, Selphie focused on getting back on her feet as the overpowering smell was truly getting to her.
There was a loud clang and a sharp groan of pain from someone beneath her as she moved about. She whispered a hurried apology and crawled over to the floor, confident she was on solid enough ground not to injure anyone else if she tried to stand up now.
She was in the process of trying to find something to hold on to, when the lights above her flickered. There was a collective gasp, then a moment of silence as they all waited to see what was going to happen. Another flicker, and the power was fully restored.
Selphie joined everyone in the room into a round of loud applause and sighs of relief.
When the excitement wore down, the people around her immediately set off to work again, paying little attention to her.
She was in the kitchens, she realized. All around her, the staff was already getting back to work in order to continue preparing the lavish meal she and her friends had been enjoying for the better part of the night. She was temped to stick around a little longer and watch the chefs cook. However, she figured the staff was busy enough without having to to deal with her questions on top of their workload.
With a little more grace than she had arrived, Selphie made her way toward the exit of the kitchens. On her way out, she noticed a member of the staff cleaning up the garbage that had spilled out from the waste bin she had upended earlier on.
Feeling a little guilty for creating the mess of vegetable peels and fish heads that was now spread all over the floor, she decided to help the man out before returning to the dining room.
She approached him, looking as apologetic as she could without putting it to words; she had no idea if he spoke any Balamese. "Help?" she asked, pointing at the garbage bin.
The man looked up, startled. There was a slightly panicky look on his eyes as Selphie repeated the question, but after a few seconds, he seemed to understand what she was trying to say and grinned at her, shaking his hands and head in negation. "No help. All okay," he said in broken Balamese.
"Please," Selphie insisted, kneeling down on the floor next to him. "It's my fault you have to do this, so let me-" she said, trying to scoop up a handful of cucumber peels.
"No help," the man repeated, pushing her hands away. "You go back, food coming now."
"I just want to-" Selphie began, but words suddenly failed her.
Among all the garbage on the floor, she could see several discarded parts of various fish. There was a particular fish head, however, that caught her attention. It was large, with distinct, protruding eyes and puffy cheeks. It was the head of a pufferfish. Fugu.
But... Laguna said he didn't have a chef who can-
Realization struck her like a bolt of lightning.
She whirled around toward the exit, where she saw a waiter holding a platter identical to the mackerel sashimi they'd been served earlier. Both mackerel and fugu had white meat like most fish, making their flesh virtually the same to any outsider's eyes. It didn't take long to put two and two together. Unfortunately for her, the man next to her seemed to have read the look of recognition on her face correctly.
Selphie sprang up to her feet, just as the man reached for the discarded top of the garbage bin. Her outfit, not to mention the copious amounts of sake she had consumed, were significantly dampening her reflexes. She saw the attack coming, but she knew she could not move fast enough to avoid it.
The cover of the waste bin connected with her head, letting out a deafening, gong-like 'clang!' Selphie lost her balance and fell on the floor, holding her aching head with one hand. Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck!
The man, with strength she wouldn't have thought possible, clamped a hand over her mouth and pulled her up to her feet. Selphie trashed in his arms, but he pinned her body right against his with his free arm. In her half-panicked, half-inebriated state, she managed to scrounge up enough clarity to realize she was vastly outnumbered; even though she doubted any person in that kitchen knew half the things she did about incapacitating someone, they could easily overwhelm her if they all came at her together.
To her surprise, she saw that some of the kitchen staff were just as surprised and scandalized about the attack as she was. Before they could even move a muscle to help her, they were overpowered by who she guessed where her assailant's accomplishes.
The man holding her yelled something to the waiter, who nodded in response and sped out of the kitchen, platter in hand.
Selphie swung her legs up in a well-practiced maneuver that was meant to give her enough momentum to throw her attacker over her shoulder. Her feet landed back down and she threw her weight forward, but the man holding her was either too strong or too skilled to budge; he barely moved an inch.
As she landed, however, her right shoulder slipped off his grip, freeing her whole arm. Despite her duller reflexes, Selphie's SeeD training was by now such a deeply ingrained part of her, that she didn't even have to think about her next move. Before the attacker had time to pin her arm down again, she reached up swiftly, pulling out one of the ornamental chopsticks holding her bun together. With as much force as she could muster, Selphie brought the chopstick down on his thigh.
At the sound of the gut-wrenching scream, she knew she had succeeded. His grip loosened at once, and Selphie pulled away with ease, landing a crushing punch right on his nose. She was off before he even hit the ground.
For the first time since she'd bought it, Selphie rued the day she had ever decided to own a kimono. She could hardly run in it, not to mention the platform shoes, but stopping even for a second to loosen her dress and kick the shoes off could be fatal.
She was almost at the door, when one of the man's accomplices lunged for her, grabbing a hold of her kimono. There was a harsh ripping sound as the skirt of her dress split in two; the man's weight was enough to put a stop to her sprint.
Whirling around on the spot, Selphie didn't stop to lament her now destroyed kimono, but instead used the new-found freedom of movement to bring her leg around for a powerful kick that connected with the man's head.
She spun around to face the door again and, without pausing, she pushed it open and staggered out into the corridor.
Quistis reached out with a hand blindly, trying to find Zell in the darkness. Around her, everyone else were trying to get their bearings, amidst whispers and queries as to what had happened. Quistis's hand met with a shoulder; she squeezed it, trying to figure out whether it was Zell's or someone else's.
"Zell, is that you I'm touching?" Quistis asked.
A warm hand covered hers. "This your hand?" Zell asked.
"Yes," Quistis answered. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah. What the hell just happened?"
"Everyone calm down!" came Laguna's voice from somewhere within the room. "It's just a blackout. The back-up generator should be up and running soon enough; we-"
Just as Laguna mentioned it, power was restored and Quistis let out a sigh. Esthar's last major blackout had occurred a little less than a week ago, and according to what she had read on the paper, it had taken the technicians hours to restore power.
"There we go!" Laguna said, grinning broadly. "Kiros, Ward, can you go check-?"
"On it," Kiros said, before Laguna had even finished his question. He and Ward left the room in a hurry, off to check what was going on with the power in the palace and the rest of the city, Quistis assumed.
After those few eventful minutes, it was a relief to know their peaceful night wouldn't have to come to an end sooner than planned. The cool, sweet sake was having a relaxing effect on her, and Quistis wasn't at all eager to head back to Garden quite yet.
Laguna went on to refresh everyone's drinks and assured them that dinner was most certainly not over. Sure enough, a few minutes later, waiters reappeared at the threshold, carrying platter after platter of Esthari delicacies. From what little she caught of Laguna's conversation with a member of the staff, Quistis heard him ask if they were having any issues with the power in the kitchen, as well as congratulate them for being so professional and going on with their work under the circumstances.
The last of the waiters approached the table, setting down a plate in front of Ellone.
"Uncle, I told you not to-" Ellone began to protest.
"It's your favorite," Laguna said, grinning.
"It is, but you didn't have to order the chef to make another serving just for me when we have so many guests," she said, looking only partly angry at him. "Everyone, dig in if you liked the mackerel," she said. "I'm not going to eat the whole thing on my own."
Quistis was about to take Ellone up on her offer, when a loud crash and yells coming from the corridor outside made everyone pause their dinner and stare at the door. There was something that sounded like a scuffle, then a high-pitched scream and the doors burst open, revealing a very battered-looking Selphie.
Her kimono had been torn to shreds. There was a thick crimson torrent of blood running down from her disheveled hair to her cheek. One of her fists was clenched so tightly the knuckles had gone white, and within it, she was holding one of the chopsticks that had once held her hair up; it was coated in blood. She was struggling to catch her breath, like she had just ran a marathon from the depths of hell all the way back to the dining room.
"DON'T TOUCH THE SASHIMI!" she shrieked at Ellone, panting and wobbling on the spot.
Ellone, along with everyone else in the room, had long ago dropped her chopsticks in utter shock and was now staring at Selphie wide-eyed.
"Sefie...?" Irvine said weakly. "What the heck hap-?"
"It's poisoned!" she said, her steps faltering as she approached the table. "Fugu... the chef... Not- it's fugu," she stammered, before taking one final shaky step and collapsing onto the floor.
"BE QUIET!" Xu shouted, her voice carrying over the noise in the main hall. Immediately, the cadets and SeeDs surrounding her fell silent, clearly recognizing her voice.
The moment the power had failed, the main hall erupted in noises ranging from excitement right down to shrieks of terror from the junior classmen. Desperate to instill some order and find out what had caused the blackout, Xu had tried to make her way to the elevator to see if it worked, in order to head up to the third floor and try and get the intercom working.
Within her struggle to make it up the steps, she had been trampled on by more people than she cared to count, and she wasn't certain Felix was still with her.
For all she knew, he had used the momentary distraction to slip away.
Where's a Hynedamned light spell when you need one? she thought, clenching her teeth. There's a spell for every fucking element in existence and then some, but no-one thought it might be a good idea to come up with a spell to provide light?
She was tempted to light up a Firaga to see just what the hell was going on, but with so many people surrounding her, someone was bound to get injured.
This whole thing reeks of Seifer, she thought. Son-of-a-bitch thinks he can get away with-
Suddenly, the lights above her flickered to life. There was a ripple of cheers and applause from everyone and Xu was more than a little surprised to see that Felix was still there by her side. "Everyone head back to your dormitories," Xu called out. "And stay there until further notice!"
"Jeez, what was-?" Felix began, but before he had time to form any more words, Xu grabbed him by the front of his jacket and marched over to the elevator.
"You're coming with me," she said, seething.
Felix stumbled on after her, looking more than a little shocked and confused at the harsh treatment. "What are you-?"
"Shut up," Xu snarled at him, not stopping even when he nearly tripped over the stairs. She pushed the call button and stepped into the elevator, dragging Felix along with her. As soon as the doors closed behind them, Xu slammed the man right against the glass wall and ripped his jacket open.
"ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR FUCKING MIND?" Felix yelled, trying to push her away.
"Where is it?" Xu said, her hands traveling up and down his torso.
"Where is what?"
"That blackout was not a coincidence," Xu said, searching every visible inch of his body she could get her hands on. "Someone tipped you off."
"You think I'm bugged?" Felix said, frowning at her, but he did not resist anymore.
"I know you're bugged," Xu said. "It's not a question of if, it's a question of where."
"I had nothing to do with the damned blackout!" Felix protested. "How could I- ?"
"I don't know, but I'm going to find out," Xu said.
By the time they reached the third floor, she had searched every possible nook and cranny of his body where a wire could be hidden. The lining of his clothes, his trousers, his jacket, behind his ears, but she had come up with nothing.
When the elevator doors opened, Felix was a disheveled mess of hair flying all over the place and clothes askew, and even though she had found nothing, Xu was still convinced he wasn't innocent.
"Are you done?" Felix drawled. "Or should I expect a cavity search as well?"
Xu jerked her head toward the corridor. Shaking his head, Felix stepped out and she followed suit, determined to get to the bottom of this.
Quistis had never before seen Laguna so angry.
After Selphie's dramatic entrance and subsequent collapse, Irvine and Rinoa had rushed to her side. Rinoa had been able to bring Selphie back to consciousness long enough for her to identify the culprits. It didn't take long before she passed out again, and Irvine took her to one of the bedrooms in the palace to rest and recover. Laguna had immediately ordered a lockdown on the palace and called his guards to arrest the kitchen staff.
Within the commotion, Ellone, who had heard enough to understand that she had been one mouthful away from death, had quietly retired to her room, looking paler than chalk.
The three remaining SeeDs, along with Rinoa, were transferred to the lounge where they were told to wait, unable to do anything but watch as Laguna yelled at everyone and everything for allowing this to happen.
Squall, never one comfortable with staying behind while others rushed into action, was pacing back and forth the room, his expression grim. Quistis, Rinoa and Zell all sat on one of the comfortable couches, huddled together and wearing identical grimaces of shock and horror.
"Hyne, was it-? Were they after Elle, or was it meant for all of us?" Rinoa asked, bringing her knees up to her chest.
She didn't have to explain what 'it' was.
Quistis nervously toyed with a stray lock of hair, considering the question. "Laguna said it was Ellone's favorite dish; they made it specifically for her," she began. "I guess... well... maybe they wanted to kill her, but didn't mind if the rest of us went down with her."
"Why Sis, though?" Zell asked, staring at the wall across him blankly. "She never hurt a soul."
"Her powers?" Rinoa suggested. "Not that she ever harmed anyone, but... maybe they feared her."
"Or maybe," Squall said, coming to a stop with his back turned to all of them, staring out the window. "This is all somehow connected."
"What do you mean?" Zell asked.
Quistis knew what he meant. She was convinced there was something connecting all the recent events, but she had no idea what that might be. "He means everything that's been happening lately," she replied. "The attack against the Archbishop, the strange weapon they found on the attacker, the suspect Selphie and I failed to apprehend... and then there's tonight."
"It's suspicious how things keep on piling up, sure," Zell said, his left leg bobbing up and down nervously. "But what connection? I don't see it."
"Yet," Squall said, still not turning around.
Silence fell between them again. Quistis sunk against the soft cushions of the couch, staring at the ceiling listlessly. She hated being told to wait, not knowing what was happening outside. She knew Squall and Zell felt the same way, perhaps even Rinoa.
Her thoughts strayed to the last two of their company. Selphie... Hyne, she looked a mess, Quistis thought. I hope she's alright. She's tough, but when she came in looking like that...
"Rinoa?" Quistis asked. "When you went to patch up Selphie, how did she look? Is she going to be okay?"
Rinoa nodded. "She had a pretty deep head wound, but she'll be fine," she said and suddenly let out a small giggle. "You know that old adage, 'you should have seen the other guy' ?" she asked, grinning.
"You should have seen the other guy," she repeated. "One of them had a broken nose and this nasty hole right on his thigh, Kiros said. She got him with her chopstick. And another one got such a strong kick to the head half his face ballooned into a huge bump."
"Good girl," Zell said, his voice full of pride. "She kicked those bastards' asses."
Quistis nodded in consent, glad above all else that Selphie had made it out in one piece. With a fleeting glance toward Squall, she noticed he, too, had a hint of a grin on his lips.
Their idle conversation was interrupted when Laguna wrenched the door of the lounge open and stepped inside. He looked significantly calmer than the enraged man who had bellowed orders to his guards a few minutes ago, but his eyes still shone with barely suppressed rage.
"An armed guard is escorting half the kitchen staff to penitentiary as we speak," he said, closing the door behind him. He turned to the three people on the couch, looking weary and nearly a decade older after the ordeal. "Can one of you go check up on Ellone?" he asked. "I need to talk to Squall about a few things."
"I'll go," Quistis offered, standing up.
Laguna nodded in thanks and gave her a pat on the shoulder as she walked past him. "She's in her room. Do you know-?"
"I know where it is," Quistis said, giving him a sympathetic smile before exiting the lounge.
She nearly ran down the hallway, part of her afraid that with everything else happening, someone may have found an opportunity to carry out another, successful attempt to murder Ellone. She knew that Laguna would've never let her go without a guard to escort her after everything that had transpired, but she hurried along all the same, wanting to see with her own eyes that Ellone was safe.
All around her, the palace staff was abuzz with the latest development, whispering among themselves and looking shaken up. Quickening her pace, she finally reached the corridor where Ellone's room was. To her immense relief, she saw two guards stationed on either end of the corridor, keeping their distance out of respect, but still watching over her.
The guards had no trouble recognizing Quistis, and gave her the okay to enter. Thanking them, Quistis approached the door and saw that it was slightly ajar. She was about to knock before entering, but the sounds she heard coming from within the room stopped her; Ellone wasn't alone. A man was talking to her and his deep voice was vaguely familiar.
Carefully, Quistis peeked through the thin crack of the door, confirming her suspicion. The person talking to Ellone was Logan Vale, Laguna's aide. He was holding Ellone's shoulders, looking at her in concern, while she spoke to him in rapid Esthari. Quistis could only pick up a few words here and there; not nearly enough to help her piece together what was being said, but Ellone was clearly talking about the attack and somewhere along the line, she mentioned she was scared for herself and... someone, something else?
Quistis thought it was a little inappropriate of Vale to be standing so close to Ellone, but the girl looked and sounded so upset, that Quistis was glad someone was trying to comfort her. She was about to knock and let them know Laguna had sent her over, when she saw Vale cup Ellone's face in his hands and lean in to kiss her on the lips.
Quistis froze; she had no idea Ellone was involved with someone, let alone Vale. All of a sudden, she felt like she was intruding on something very personal.
"Ochitsuke, anata," Vale said, running his fingers through Ellone's hair. "Ima daijoubu desu."
Unable to stifle a smile at the tenderness Vale was touching and talking to Ellone with, Quistis made a move to leave and give them some privacy.
She was about to turn around, when she saw him wrap one arm around Ellone's shoulders and place the other on her stomach. He leaned in to whisper something in her ear, something that made Ellone smile and rest her head against his chest.
Quistis didn't need to hear what had just been said to make sense of the situation. Their body language was loud and clear: Ellone was not only involved in a serious relationship, she was pregnant.
Deciding she had seen enough, Quistis stepped away from the door as discreetly as she could. She didn't know what to make of the news. On one hand, she was really glad to see Ellone was happy, so obviously in love and about to become a mother.
On the other hand, she was terrified of what all this meant. Would she have a normal pregnancy? Would the child inherit her powers? Did Laguna know about this? Did anyone?
And more importantly... was Ellone's unborn child the target of tonight's incident?
Seifer stifled a sigh of relief as the door to the brig closed behind him. If he had arrived but a few seconds later, the lights would've turned on and he never would have made it through the door unnoticed by the guards; just barely after he had entered, the power had been restored.
He kept his invisibility on, walking down across the corridor and out of earshot.
"I'm in the brig," he whispered, his heart still racing.
"Good, good! Let me know when you find the cell; I'm ready."
Seifer didn't have to search long. The brig held only two cells and after discovering one of them empty, he knew the suspect had to be imprisoned in the other one.
"I'm there," he said, standing behind the door leading to the cell. "Do it."
With the spider in place down in the server, Jack was now free to mess with the camera feed to his liking without being detected. If any of them had slipped up, all traces could now easily be erased from the camera recording and replaced with something inconspicuous.
For obvious reasons, there were no cameras overlooking the cells. Wouldn't want anyone to see what goes on in there, Seifer thought wryly.
"Alright... Switching feeds in three, two, one... Done. Be alert. If I ask you to turn invisible again, do it at once."
Removing his invisibility and giving Jack a nod he could now see, Seifer pressed his hand against the door, his body brimming with anticipation. This was it. Their missing link. The lost piece of the puzzle in a months-long investigation that had come to such an abrupt halt.
"Is Felix there yet?" Seifer asked, knowing he would need someone to translate for him.
"No. Don't worry though. I'm recording the whole thing and I know enough to be able to figure out what is being said. If he does understand Balamese like you suspect he does, it shouldn't be a problem. Go."
Seifer pushed the door open...
And what he saw made him gasp in horror.
Quistis's departure was closely followed by Zell and Rinoa's. Though Laguna hadn't specifically asked them to leave, Squall assumed they realized Laguna would feel more comfortable speaking to him in private. They mentioned checking up on Selphie and left the room quietly, leaving Squall alone with his father.
Laguna walked up to him, looking full of purpose. Squall met his gaze when he came to a stop, waiting to hear what he had known Laguna was going to say ever since the moment they realized Ellone's life was in danger.
"You're officially hired," Laguna said.
Squall nodded in consent.
"Find whoever did this. I don't care how, I don't care how many people you use, how much money you'll need," Laguna went on. "Just find them and bring them to me. The cost-"
Squall shook his head. "We can discuss the fee some other time," he said. "Don't worry about it just now."
Laguna nodded, rubbing his forehead with one palm. Squall had to marvel at the way he was handling the situation. The few times he had seen Laguna take charge in the past, it had been within the context of his role as a President. For all he knew, it was a mask that Laguna had learned to wear –and wear well- during his long term in office.
This time, however, it was different. He was different. His reaction wasn't the reaction of the rare, honorable politician who rushed into action in order to defend justice. It was the reaction of a parent who was horrified and enraged at the prospect of someone trying to harm his child.
It was a face Laguna had never shown in Squall's presence before. While he was impressed, not to mention grateful to have Laguna's resources backing him up in this case, Squall couldn't help but feel intensely jealous at the same time. Deep down, he knew Laguna cared about him, but would he ever care enough to bestow the same treatment upon him if he was ever in danger like Ellone was? The logical part of him told him that he was a soldier, that he was supposed to be putting his life on the line constantly, and perhaps Laguna had long ago accepted that.
But there was another part, the sentimental part of him, the part that that held all the vile, weak, pitiful things in his heart, the disgusting little morsels that made him antagonize Ellone at a time like this.
Pathetic, he chastized himself. You're pathetic, Squall. Your sister was nearly killed tonight and you're jealous of her. You're a fucking-
"I should-" Squall suddenly said, looking away. The last thing he wanted right now was to be lost into his own thoughts. Having something to sink his teeth into for the following weeks would provide a big distraction, at the very least. "I should probably gather everyone up and get going," he said. "We all need a good night's rest before we can tackle the investigation."
"Yeah, sure," Laguna said, nodding. "I'm just sorry our evening together had to end like this."
Squall shrugged. "It's okay. It's not your fault. You didn't-"
"Mr. President, sir!"
Both Laguna and Squall turned together toward the doorway. Three Esthari guards had just rushed in, heading straight for them. If the urgency in the first man's voice hadn't been enough to alert them there was more bad news on the way, Squall had but to take one look at the one hanging back from the small group to realize something was horribly wrong; he was the only one who had taken his mask off, and there was a sickly, clammy look about his face. He looked like he had just thrown up, or was about to.
"What's wrong?" Laguna said, a new surge of panic surging up in his tone.
The guard who had spoken came to a stop in front of Laguna. Such was his hurry that he didn't even bother saluting his President. "Sir... th-the prisoners..." he stammered, shaking his head. "The gunner, too. I-"
"What happened?" Laguna pressed on, his face clouding. "Did they escape?"
"No, sir," the man continued, breathing hard. He reached up and removed his mask in a hurry, like it was suffocating him. Squall wasn't surprised to see that underneath, he looked just like the sickly one of the group. His hair was drenched in cold sweat and he refused to look Laguna in the eye. "They... they just..."
"Breathe," Squall cut in, forcing all vestiges of panic out of his voice. He, too, feared hearing the worst, but they weren't going to get anywhere if the guard was unable to string more than two words together. "Take your time, and start from the beginning."
The man nodded, swallowing hard. He spent nearly a full minute gathering his wits, but at long last, he looked up at Laguna, his breathing a little steadier. "We were escorting the kitchen staff to their cells," he began narrating. "Everything was going well. They didn't fight back, they didn't protest, they didn't look worried... Hell, they didn't even say a word."
There was something very familiar about that behavioral pattern, Squall realized. It wasn't often that a suspect, guilty or not, accepted his fate staunchly and remained impassive during his incarceration. That type of behavior stood out, and Squall suddenly realized what it all reminded him of.
"We were just about to leave the facility when alarms went off," the guard said. "Barely a minute after we'd left them."
No, no... Don't say it...
"They... they were all dead, sir," he said, his voice shaking. "Committed suicide the moment they were alone in their cells. The suspect for the Archbishop's case, too."
"WHAT?" Laguna thundered. "Didn't you search them for concealed-?"
In a very unorthodox move for a military man addressing his President, the guard interrupted Laguna. "We did, sir!" he said, a pleading look in his eyes. "They were clean, completely clean!"
"Then how the hell did they kill themselves?" Laguna asked.
"We... we think," the man said, looking faint again. "We think they used poison capsules, sir. Probably hid them under their tongues; that's why they wouldn't speak-"
"There is no poison that can kill in under a minute," Squall interjected. "Didn't it occur to you to call a medic?"
"W-wouldn't do much good, sir," the guard said, his voice barely above a whisper.
"Why the hell not?" Squall asked. "At the very least, have them examine the bodies-"
"There... there are no bodies... left to speak of, sir."
"Grey Leader? Come on, man, speak up. I'm getting worried here; I haven't heard a single sound in two minutes. What the hell is going on?"
Seifer held up a hand to his mouth, fighting back the bile that threatened to rise up to his throat. Gritting his teeth and breathing very hard through his nose, he opened his mouth just long enough to answer back.
"Abort mission. Pack everything and leave the room now."
"What? Why? What the fuck hap-?"
"I said, NOW. Switch the feed back to normal, pack up and leave. I won't say it again."
Seifer rushed to the door, only barely remembering to turn invisible again. He had no idea how he was supposed to make it back without getting noticed, but the only thing he was concerned with at the moment was the sight he had come across inside the brig.
Get out of here. Get some air. Wash your fucking brain with bleach. Whatever. Just get out, get out, get out...
He hadn't felt that way in nearly two years. He had long ago gotten over every horrible memory from the war, but all the blood, the gore, the carnage was suddenly coming back to him full force. And yet, he could not mentally summon an image that even came close to being as disturbing as what he had just seen:
The prisoner, sitting in a chair at the very center of his cell.
Only it wasn't the prisoner anymore. There wasn't enough of him left to call that bloody, disintegrated mass a person.
The body, if that was even an adequate enough term to describe it, had been eaten away, literally eroded, exposing bones, muscles and organs. The room had smelled of burning flesh, metal and the pungent scent of acid.
As Seifer exited the cell, he could still hear the sizzling sound of the prisoner's body continuing to disintegrate.
A/N: I don't know when the next update is going to be. I have exams coming up soon, so if I find myself too wrapped up in revising, there won't be much time to write. Chapter twelve could be up in a month, or maybe more, we'll see. Sorry in advance.
That having been said, things should start slowing down a little in the story. At least for now ;) After so many consecutive developments, I feel that a couple of slow-paced chapters are in order.
You may wonder what happened with Nida and Shizuka who were also meant to corner one of Seifer's men each. I left those scenes out intentionally, as the chapter was huge enough already, and there wouldn't be much of interest to show. Still, you'll find out exactly what happened to them and get answers to everything else that has been left hanging in the next chapter.
Till next time!